Sermon – Keeping the Commandments

Here is the sermon that I preached this morning. There was quite a lot of chatter about if after the service. Not everyone will agree with me, but as usual, comments and debate are welcome here.

Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love”.

The news has been dominated this week with a story all about keeping within rules. Every time I’ve turned on the radio or picked up a paper, I’ve read greater and greater outrage about the MPs’ expenses scandal.

It isn’t surprising.

However, as I’ve been listening to that, I have a slightly different take on it to what most people have. You see, I was a candidate in the last General Election. That person staring out from the front of the newspaper making all the excuses in the world for their bad behaviour – that might have been me.

I’ve asked myself this week – can I know that I would have behaved differently if I had been there?

And I don’t know. And that gives me great pause for thought.

The question of how we decide what to do at any given moment in our lives is one of profound significance. How we decide what to do is often thought to be a religious question. I’ve got my own suspicions about whether ethics is a religious game. After all, I think that it is possible for non-religious people to live just as ethically as those of us who do express our spirituality in overtly religious ways.

I’m suspicious of people who think that Christians will behave any better than anyone else. Experience suggests otherwise.

Like many modern people, my way of thinking about ethics does not depend on anything that Jesus said. So I have to contend with his words and ask very serious questions of myself when I encounter any talk of commandments in the gospels.

If you keep my commandments, you abide in my love.

In most of the religions worth thinking about, there are different kinds of people. Religious people seem to find themselves on a spectrum of belief about commandments and rule-keeping and that spectrum seems to be similar across different faiths.

Are you the kind of person who lives by the book and wants clear rules to keep you in order. Or are you the kind of person who wants to think about motivation – the motivation behind those who suggest commandments and the motivation that you might have for breaking or keeping any set of rules.

Christianity contains both kinds of people. So does Islam. So does Buddhism. So does Judaism.

Are we to be rule-keepers or not.

You’ll not be surprised that I’m more interested in knowing why people make the decisions that they do than in judging them against a set of specific commandments.

For me it is a delight that Jesus seems to have distilled the commandments of old down to “Love the Lord your God and Love your Neighbour as yourself.”

Love is the fulfilment of the law in my book.

Occasionally, I know that I have been a rule-breaker in church. Occasionally, I think that doing the right thing is not necessarily to keep the rules that the community has inherited.

That might seem a rather surprising thing to say from a pulpit – but let me give a good example of it from Scripture before giving a similar example from my own experience.

The first reading this morning had an excellent example. The early church faced a question – what to do about Gentile believers – should they be baptised and accepted as Christian believers or was Jesus’s message only for Jesus’s Jewish friends? In our first reading, it was Peter who went out on a limb. It was clear to him that God was already with those who had joined the community who were Gentiles. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he asked. And he ordered them to be baptised.

Peter broke the apparent rule that they community had about keeping the grace of God only for the in-crowd. And he was right to do so. Had he not, there would have been little good news of grace for most of us here this morning.

I have a very simple, parallel example from our own experience. St Mary’s attracts a diverse crowd – people from many churches and from time to time, people who come from different faiths.

The convention in the Scottish Episcopal Church is that we offer communion to all who have been baptised. However, as you know, I tend to go a little father than that.

I say that if you are here you belong.

Twice in the past year, I’ve known that people whose own faith background and experience was formed in the Jewish faith were here at a communion service and seen them come up to receive communion. I’ve been happy to give it to them. Not to do so would make a nonsense out of a faith which was born in a Jewish household meal.

I broke a rule when I did that though I don’t think that I broke the conventions of this particular gathering of God’s people. For St Mary’s is a place of radical hospitality. A place for challenging the very idea of rules that keep people in our out of the kingdom and which might seem to exclude people from God’s grace. As if that were even possible.

I am untroubled by members of my own family (most of whom have a background in the Salvation Army and are therefore unbaptised themselves receiving communion. In fact, those are weasel words – I’m not just untroubled by it, I positively enthuse about it. Similarly, with children who are not baptised yet. There is nothing in the gospels about the order in which the sacraments come to people.

If children are fit enough human beings to eat food with their families at home, I am genuinely bewildered as to why they are not seen as fit to eat the good things from God’s table.

Peter’s experience in Acts seems to suggest that he recognised that God was present with people he did not at first expect God to be with.

That’s my experience too.

I was struck by a comment from someone in the Church Times this week when speaking of her frustration that Christians seem to behave without any faith to believe that children and God know one another already, regardless of our attempts to introduce them.

I know that frustration too.

How do we make decisions about what we do? Do we always keep within the rules or don’t we.

It is tempting amidst all the clamour over MPs pay to think that strong rules will sort out all our woes.

Yet life is not so simple. The MPs actually had rules and a great many of them now perceived to have done wrong were actually keeping within them.

It is hard to win the ethical game, whether you are an MP or not.

Strong rules and strong policing are not nearly so important as the formation of people’s own sense of conscience.

If our faith has anything at all to add to the discussion about how rules should or shouldn’t be formed and made and kept, it is the suggestion that Love lies at the centre of who we are and all that we do.

That love is the starting point and the ending place, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. It is in the name of that love that you are invited to celebrate at this table and to receive God�s bread and wine. It is the good news of that love that you are invited to celebrate in every other place you go and to take the news of Easter that Christ is risen. For if Christ were not risen, we would not be gathered here.

Comments

  1. Dear Kelvin

    I hope that you are well. I continue to enjoy and be challenged by your posts.

    Unless you have already got it can I recommend Richard Burridge’s book, ‘Imitating Jesus’. Burridge calls for an inclusive approach to Christian ethics that takes its lead from both the words AND deeds of Jesus. This, for Burridge, is a call to be merciful which is a reflection of the mercy of God,

    “as revealed in Jesus’ own merciful and loving acceptance of everyone, including or especially those whom some considered to be ‘sinners’ without preconditions. In this way, we learn to ‘do what Jesus would do’.” (p. 78)

    Perhaps this kind of discipleship does indeed justify your radically inclusive approach to communion.

    But why do I feel a little uncomfortable. It is now because my deep biblical knowledge leads me to consider your approach “unscriptural” as I don’t have such a deep knowledge.

    There is part of me, and perhaps lots of Christians, who question what kind of faith we are left with when we open all the borders! This is what causes fear and distrust. We think, for example, when we read what Marcus Borg might say, that his own inclusive understanding is admirable but has no foundation other than his own personal and human sense of ethics. Does he look at Jesus and see his own face reflected back?

    I am in no position to judge. I am simply searching after God. I want to know God. I know that there is something missing from the conservative “evangelical” Christian message and praxis. But I also know that they are on surer historic ground. I know what they believe. I don’t know what you believe and that makes me uncomfortable.

    Can you help me to understand?

    Thank you.

    Steven

  2. Kelvin says

    One of the persistent untruths flung at anyone presumed to be liberal by evangelicals is that they have opened all the borders or that they are teaching that anything goes.

    We all have limits to our own behaviour which come from a variety of sources. Character and conscience inform decisions as do ethical codes.

    I’ve never presumed that any evangelical has a different approach to ethics than I do. I think that evangelicals and liberals come to different conclusions by using ethical methodology that is remarkably similar. It might be called picking and choosing by some, but I’d call it making informed decisions. As the saying goes, never trust a two-eyed fundamentalist. We are all sifting the values we have all the time and viewing them through the lens of our own experience.

    Where I would part from evangelicals is in thinking that we can derive our ethics only from reading the Bible. That’s just plain silly.

    I don’t believe that a conservative evangelical point of view is on surer historical ground than I am. Even if I did, I neither want to live in the past nor think it appropriate to try.

    I think a great deal of the troubles of the Christian church stem from not thinking about ethics properly. One of the things I do from time to time is a workshop called “All you need to know about Christian Ethics in 6 cartoons.” It explores half a dozen or so different ways that Christians have used to make their minds up about things and then contrasts one with another.

    For example, the ethical decision system WWJD is radically different from those who try to derive ethics from the commandment culture of much of the Hebrew Scriptures.

    It is worth reflecting that Jesus was accused of being a commandment breaker. Was he or wasn’t he?

  3. Marion says

    Hi Kelvin, i don’t think you’re wrong to give Holy Communion to those of other faiths who desire it. After all, we preach that we are all Children of God, and that when can meet Jesus in everbody, whether they believe or not. I don’t think Jesus was breaking Commandments, just giving us new ones. Thanks for another thought provoking sermon.

  4. Insert one favourable reception of sermon from me, here. I’ve long held that there isn’t a specific tick-sheet of beliefs to “make one a Christian”. (A positive definition might be harder to come by, and my thoughts on reformed evangelicalism need modulating with some grace, so I’ll leave discussing those for later.)

    IM(H?)O we tend to see “rules”, “commandments” and “laws”, lumped together as restrictions, from a modern perspective of a police state. There’s a huge difference when we compare the underlying cultures in which our scriptures were written: much of Judaism is based on the Law as something to be loved; for Rabbis the study of Torah was something to wax lyrical about; the authors of the Psalms sound positively enraptured by it, whatever it is. So perhaps what Jesus saw, and why he rebelled against *regulation* (notably “don’t work on the Sabbath” etc), is that *God’s* Commandments are of the order “let there be light” (in a more metaphysical than cosmological sense). If that is an aspect of the Jesus we follow, small wonder our own structures and boundaries are to be taken lightly with a pinch of salt.

  5. christian says

    “If children are fit enough human beings to eat food with their families at home, I am genuinely bewildered as to why they are not seen as fit to eat the good things from God’s table”

    I agree with you Kelvin. How about blessing fruit juice and bread for children?

  6. Hi Christian – nice to hear from you.

    I think that the bread and wine can be OK for children – I was first convinced that children should receive communion about 20 years ago when I saw a father carry his daughter up to communion. When she was not given the bread by the priest, the father broke his own wafer in two and gave half to her. She leaned over and gently dipped the wafer into the wine as he was offered it to sip. It was a beautiful (and obviously well practiced) scene.

    Worth noting in passing that a Lambeth Conference resolution strictly forbids congregations from using anything other than wine for their communion services.

    Resolution 2 from 1888 says: “That the bishops assembled in this Conference declare that the use of unfermented juice of the grape, or any liquid other than true wine diluted or undiluted, as the element in the administration of the cup in Holy Communion, is unwarranted by the example of our Lord, and is an unauthorised departure from the custom of the Catholic Church.”

    Presumably no church which promotes Lambeth Conference resolutions goes against this teaching.

  7. Andrew says

    Dear Kelvin,

    During your sermon you said that everyone, including young children, should be admitted to Holy Communion without question. It is also possible to view this question from a different perspective.

    Throughout my life I have attended Communion regularly. I welcome the spiritual uplift I get, each week, from thinking seriously about what I have done, and cleaning my heart of any resentments or ill-will that I may hold. All this is based on what I learned in my confirmation classes – the knowledge that we are directly following Jesus’ command to share his last meal.

    My point is that if we admit young children to Communion without making sure that they understand its meaning, we are doing them a disservice. We’re depriving them of the spiritual experience and sense of awe which is such an important feature of the sacrament.

    I do not subscribe to the doctrine of transubstantiation. It follows that taking the bread and wine without understanding what it represents is no better than popping a useless vitamin pill.

    I understand that the SEC does not have an official policy on this matter, but leaves it to parents to decide on behalf of their own children. I trust that you will extend this freedom to members of our congregation, without putting pressure on to them to conform to your view.

    Andrew

  8. No Andrew, you are mistaken, the SEC does have an official policy on the matter. It is contained in Canon 25 (Of Admitting to Holy Communion).

    “The Sacrament of Baptism is the full rite of initiation into the Church, and no further sacramental rite shall be required of any person seeking admission to Holy Communion. Subject to any Regulations issued by the College of Bishops concerning the preparation of candidates, the admission of any baptized person to Holy Communion shall be at the discretion of the cleric having charge of the congregation of which that person is a member, always providing that a person who has been admitted to Holy Communion in one congregation shall be accepted as a communicant in any other congregation of this Church.”

    For myself, I find the idea that young children don’t understand communion as strange as the idea that young children don’t understand food. I’ve known a lot of children in whom I’ve seen a lovely faith which clearly understood the sacrament and I’ve seen quite a few adults who had been confirmed and received communion for decades whose faith and charity was, shall we say, known only to God.

    Confirmation does not automatically bestow understanding on anyone. The existance of people whose confirmation taught them about communion and loving God does not diminish the current policy of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The presence in church of those people also has to be balanced against the very many for whom confirmation was a sacrament of departure and having received their first communion somehow felt they were innoculated against religion for all time.

    I think that one of the most persuasive educational arguments of the modern world is that people learn things by doing them. So it is with practising holiness as with learning car mechanics.

  9. Melissa says

    I wouldn’t worry that parents felt pressure for children to take communion – when we first came to St. Mary’s – I worried that it was frowned on because I never saw any children taking communion.

    In this case, I think I might have a different view of children – that they are the ones among us for whom a sense of awe comes without reservation – and also a different view of myself – that understanding the bread and wine is not finite milestone I have overtaken, but more a path I am following. Seems also, that Communion ought to say more about God than about me(or my child or anyone else) and understanding will come more powerfully through experience than through being taught something.

    In the meantime, though, this sermon resonated with the teenagers I overheard talking in my house. Their lives can seem one constant exercise of jettisoning rules – of making choices. I think your voice of faith particularly suited their life this week.

  10. Rosemary says

    I have always taken the view, based my my childhood experiences and those of my own children, that making a communion is not primarily an intellectual matter. I say this as a Mr Spock by nature, too.

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.